Friday, October 17, 2014

Jungle Beach Resort

I had booked myself for three nights at the Jungle Beach Resort on Palawan. It came highly recommended on TripAdvisor and sounded like a nice place to chill for a few days.

I had breakfast at The Green House, then chatted with Ad, the B&B owner, about my plans. His wife had suggested that I take a tricycle over to the bus station and catch the bus from there. Ad very generously offered to drive me over. First we stopped at Ad's favourite coffee shop, Itoys, and I hit the bank to get some cash. Ad had sorted out my ATM problems the day before. Apparently there was an Asian block on my ABN AMRO card that prevented me from getting any money. A few adjustments on my account and I was good to get cash again. It's a good thing I brought my e-dentifier with me.

This access to cash was a good thing, because I knew credit cards weren't going to be accepted in many places, and I'd read that there were no ATMs in El Nido, which was my destination after Jungle Beach. So I maxed out my withdrawals on a couple of account and I was set.

Ad then drove me to be bus terminal, which was a good distance out of town. He let me know that during regular hours it could be an hour and a half drive just to get to the station. That's what happens when there's just one road on the island.

Catching the bus was challenging. It shouldn't have been, but when I got there there didn't seem to be any logic for what was going where, or what buses were the ones I wanted. To make it worse, there were drivers everywhere yelling at me to come with them, and it was crazy hot out. I eventually found a bus that said it was going the right way and jumped on. I was the only guy on it. About 45 minutes later the bus was packed full, with people hanging in the aisle, and it was just getting hotter. But we finally headed out.

I later discovered that pretty much any bus going north would do. There's only one road, so as long as you don't head south, or to the underground river, you're good.

The trip was long and uncomfortable. We'd stop periodically and vendors would jump on to sell water, eggs, or whatever else they had. I counted down the kilometers and at the 73k signpost I jumped off and Jungle Beach was right there.

It's a small place. I think there were only four places to sleep. I had the Papaya hut. On the beach. No AC, but a fan. And a nice patio leading out to the water.

There weren't many others there. At the moment it was just Jürg, the Swiss owner, and a Filipino guest from LA who was in the Philipines to visit his grandmother. Jürg's wife Birgit was home in Switzerland visiting family. Later that evening another couple, also from Switzerland, arrived. They had stayed there before and weren't happy with the next place they'd visited, so they'd come back.

Jungle Beach also had its collection of animals. There was Gina, the dog who would chase sticks and rocks all day. There were a few other dogs, whose names I didn't pick up since Gina was the star. There were three monkeys, usually tied up on a long lead in the back of the main building, but Jürg would hang out with the youngest monkey on his head. And Desiree, the chef, would spend some quality time with the monkey.

Jungle Beach is a great place for scuba divers. There's a reef just off the shore, and more if you want to swim out. Jürg was very eager to loan out diving equipment but, while I'm PADI certified, I haven't been diving in a few years and wasn't feeling like just jumping in and giving it a try. Jürg would probably have provided a refresher course, but I was perfectly happy to head out snorkelling a couple of times. To be honest, the reef is so near the surface that I don't think I would have got a lot more out of it if I had gone down.

There's usually a sandy beach in front of the resort, but there wasn't while we were there. Jürg said that the waves and rains take it way from August to October, and by the end of November it's all back again. So it was rocky and tough to get in the water while I was there.

There were also huge rain storms that came in during the evenings that made us hide under cover. A lot of reading was done, and one evening we had a big game of Risk. Teaching the rules of a fairly complex board game to people who don't speak much English can be tough, but we got through it. Plus, amazingly for a game of Risk, no one hated anyone else at the end. But maybe that's just because we didn't play to the bitter end.

Breakfast and dinner were big buffet spreads. Delicious foods prepared fresh by Desiree and some other staff. Lunch was available if needed, although the breakfast was so big that you could make your way to dinner without. My only issue with this was that they made lunch seem like an imposition, so if you were hungry you felt not great about asking for food.

A couple of days at Jungle Beach was perfect. Very relaxing. However, as a solo traveller, I don't know if I would have wanted to stay for longer. There weren't that many options for things to do, and at some point I needed to move on. After three nights it was time to head the rest of the way north on Palawan to the town of El Nido. I'd heard mixed reviews about it, so was a bit apprehensive, but I was going to give it a shot.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Underground River

Apparently the formerly world's longest underground river (until the found a longer one in Brazil a few years ago) is on Palawan, about a 2 1/2 hour drive from Puerto Princesa.

Actually, the city of Puerto Princesa is huge, spanning a couple hundred kilometers. Which is a bit of a cheat. So the river may actually be in the city, but don't be confused by that part. It's a long drive.

I woke up in the morning and had the omelette prepared by the staff at The Green House. Then the van came to pick me up. I was the first guy they picked up, which worked well since I could get a seat where I could stretch my legs out. Then we proceed to pick up another dozen people all around town. I was the only foreigner in the group. Apparently this is the place to go visit if you're coming from Manila or other parts of the Philippines.

On the way there we stopped a few times. The first stop was at a viewpoint, where we had the opportunity to take pictures. It was at this point that I discovered what my role was to be for the day - Token White Guy. After the rest of the group had taken pictures of themselves and their family, they started to ask me to appear in their photos. I did one, then another, then a family shot, then with a couple. I tried to evoke Blue Steel, but probably didn't pull it off too well. My inclusion continued like that for the rest of the day. Everywhere we went I was in photos. Years from now these people are going to look back and say "Who the hell is the funny white guy in all our photos?"

Our second stop was at a place called Ugong rock. It was supposed to be an amazing cave that we would spelunk through. Then, at the top, we could take the zipline down. One price for sitting zipline, and a higher one for the Superman pose. I went for Superman. We had to get kitted up with helmets and gloves, making us all look super-dorky.

The cave was "fine". Not terribly impressive. What was interesting was a few very narrow openings and climbs, that I could barely fit through. I'm not in great shape, but I'm not obese either. I wonder about other larger western tourists and whether they'd be able to make it. One of the guides said she'd gotten a 280 pounder up to the top, so I guess they've sorted a way.

The Superman zipline down was great. From the top of a hill over farm land and rice fields. I wish I'd had my camera to film it and capture the water buffalo just hanging out underneath the line. Slightly terrifying. And I couldn't help think that this would be a dumb way to die, with no one knowing where I was that day. Lots of fun and worth it.

Afterwards we all climbed in the van again and drove to the beach, where you catch a boat to take you to the mouth of the river. We had lunch here, which was a buffet of unknown Filipino food. (By the way, I just figured out that Filipino is spelled with an F. No wonder spell check keeps highlighting it. How odd. But, of course, I've been living in Holland / The Netherlands with the Dutch. So who am I to judge.) Lunch wasn't bad, but I chose to not embrace the other side dish for sale - Wood worm. The woman sitting beside me at lunch decided to give it a go though. I'm slightly disappointed in myself, but I just couldn't do it. Based on the description in -  this is called Tamilok. The woodworms are found in mangrove trees, and they're not worms at all. They're molluscs, like oysters. And they're served with vinegar and chili peppers and onions. Pretty nasty looking though.

After lunch we jumped on a boat that took us to another part of the island, which was a short walk from the entrance to the river. We had been told to look out for the monkeys on the island, who would go after any food left in bags. We got off the boat and there were also signs for Monitor Lizards, which I wanted to see. But we didn't catch a sighting of either.

I thought the monitor lizard sign was funny. It's almost like they promoted how delicious they are, and useful for their leather. No wonder they're endangered.

We put on another set of helmets and we caught a smaller boat for the river trip. It was actually pretty cool. The underground river is apparently about 8k long, although we only went about 1.5k in. You can do a longer trip for 4k, but to be honest there didn't seem to be much point. There are amazing formations in the cave, and huge stalagmites and stalactites. It's not lit up inside at all, which is nice, but the guy in the bow of the boat spent all of his time lighting up formations on the wall under the direction of the guide, and the guide paddling would point out all the things that the formations looked it. It was silly, but it kept it entertaining. If they hadn't I think we all would have lost interest after about 15 minutes. It was interesting how many of the formations in an underground river in a very Catholic country ended up looking like biblical scenes. For me the most amazing area was I think called the Great Dome or something like that, which was the biggest open area within the cave. It was incredible to think that there was an entire mountain on top of this huge open space. Unfortunately, photos inside didn't work at all, so you'll just have to go yourself.

Afterwards we took the van back to Puerto Princesa and I took a tricycle to  dinner. This time I just went to Kinabuch's again, which seemed simpler. There they had a dish called Crocodile Sisig, which I decided to give a try. Delicious. A couple of San Miguel's later and I called it a day. A good little adventure.

Manila to Puerto Princesa, Philippines

After a day in Manila it was time to get out.

In the morning I had breakfast at the hotel and then went over to the nearby mall to go sandal shopping. I found myself a nice pair of Havaianas, which have subsequently turned out to be too big, and headed back to the hotel. I caught a taxi to the domestic terminal of the airport, which cost the appropriate 300 pesos or so, unlike my ride upon arrival. On the way to the airport the cab overheated, and we had to spend some quality time at a gas station refilling our water and cooling it down, but I had left with lots of time to spare, so it wasn't a problem.

At the airport I checked in and then had lots of time to wait. Which was nice because I was able to get help sorting out my phone from this terribly helpful woman. She was awesome and didn't want any money for her assistance. Fortunately, I was able to buy a Globe card from her.

The flight was supposed to be 90 minutes, but was only an hour. So I was pretty early for being picked up by Ad, the Dutch owner of the B&B where I was staying. After a short wait he arrived and took me to The Green House, the B&B owned by himself and his wife Susan, a Philippino woman, in Puerto Princesa.

After settling in for a bit I asked Ad what I should do that afternoon in Puerto. I was planning to do the underground river tour the next day, but I needed something that afternoon. He looked surprised by the question, and suggested that I could go to the mall. That didn't sound like a great idea, so I asked if there was a harbor or something that I could take a walk around. He thought about it a bit and suggested I try the Baywalk. (It was called something else. But Baywalk seems to be what comes up on other sites.)

I caught a tricycle over there and checked it out. It was about a 600m stretch of seawall. It's kind of a weird place, with Christmas decorations still up (up already). And the boardwalk was covered with kids riding rented bikes up and down. I guess if you can't afford a bike for your kid, you come here for the afternoon and rent them one to ride around. It was pretty cute, with lots of kids cycling their brothers and sisters around in tricycles. It's a small place though, and after about 20 minutes I'd had enough. Apparently the place comes to life at night, but that was still a few hours away.

I needed to get something to eat, so I looked up a place on TripAdvisor and decided to walk for it. Always an interesting decision mid-afternoon in the a hot country. They do have the coolest Walk / Don't Walk signs though. I'd like to see someone actually walk like this. And they speed up before they change, but to capture that I'd be taking my life in my hands as I crossed the street.

But I set out and an hour or so later I made it to La Terrasse, where they were supposed to have amazing chili prawns. Unfortunately, when I arrived they told me that that was the one dish they were out of. Of course. I had the sizzling squid, which was rubbery and not so nice.

After dinner I asked where a good place to get a beer was. The waiter suggested the Tiki Bar, about a kilometer away. I trekked over there, only to discover that it was the kind of place that wouldn't get going until late that evening. Instead I walked back to a place that Ad had recommended called Kinabuch Bar and Grill, where I settled in, watched some boxing and basketball, both of which the Philippinos are crazy about, and drank a couple of San Miguel's. San Mig's is the primary local beer, both the Pale Pilsner and Light version, and it's really good. Particularly when it's ice cold.

After dinner I caught a tricycle home. The driver couldn't find my place, even after I gave him the card. Apparently it's not a well known B&B, and it wouldn't show up on Google Maps. Now I know why Ad picks people up from the airport.

A good day in the Philippines. Tomorrow I was going to do the underground river tour.

A day in Manila, Intramuros

I had a day in Manila prior to heading heading over to Palawan.

To be honest, I was exhausted from the trip over. I ate breakfast at the hotel buffet, which wasn't terribly impressive, but was fine. I lay about my room for a while longer, trying to muster the energy to head out into Manila. Then I went out, making my way over to the nearest mall hoping that they could fix my smartphone issues.

As far as I can tell, Manila is a huge city made up of a series of districts that all blend into one another. I wasn't staying in a terribly popular area for tourist hotels, but I was in the historical part of town, so a popular destination for tourists to come and walk about. When I asked locals what I should do in Manila, they all seemed to suggest going to the mall. No my normal activity of choice at my destinations, but that seems to be the thing that one does in Manila.

There's not much interesting to say about the mall, other than the security on the outside, scanning everyone on the way in. And separated lines to enter, probably to do with security pat-downs. Otherwise a mall tends to be just a mall.

After the mall I headed back into Intramuros. Intramuros is the walled old Spanish city that is the historical heart of Manila. It's got the old church, administrative buildings, fort, etc. It's surrounded by massive walls 20+ meters wide with cannons on them.  It would have been impressive to find a way in back in day.

Intramuros is also surrounded by the Intramuros golf club, which is lit up so you can apparently even play at night. Knowing my love for the game, you'll be shocked to hear that I didn't play. While not an expensive course, it didn't fit with my budget for this trip, nor my one-day in Manila. Plus, it was really hot out.

After a forgettable lunch at a restaurant recommended by my hotel I wandered about Intramuros to see the rest of the sights. St. Augustin is the very old church in the centre and the top tourist destination in Manila. It was good to see, but as far as grand churches are concerned it wasn't terribly interesting or impressive. Just old.

I then walked over to the Manila Cathedral, which is the active church in the area. Much more modern. Nice from the outside, uninteresting on the inside. The sign on the outside was fun though, as it just explained how many times the Cathedral had been built, then destroyed, then built, then destroyed, ...

Next I headed towards the river and came to Fort Santiago, which used to be the great Spanish then American naval base. It's a nice little park in the middle of the city, that costs about $1.50 to get in. It's a peaceful break from the chaos outside, although it was pretty odd as there was Christmas music playing on the speakers as I walked through. Colleen would have enjoyed that. There is also a museum in memory of Rizal, a Philippino national hero from the end of Spanish colonial times, that I went through. That was worth it, because it gave a bit of context, and explained why every town I've been in seems to have a Rizal street.

After Fort Santiago I headed back towards my hotel. I tried to get some cash out and failed, which was a little disconcerting, since I wasn't sure how accessible cash would be on Palawan, where I was heading the next day. Sadly, on the walk back to the hotel, I tripped and broke my sandal. I know, who cares, but these had been my sandals for years and I'd become attached to them. And I kind of needed them. But I jumped in a tricycle and headed back to the hotel.

Back at The Bayleaf I planned to make good use of their rooftop bar. When I got up the rains began, and everyone got drenched. It's pretty impressive how much it can rain in a tropical country. I sat under a canopy in the thunderstorm, probably not a great idea, but the rain wasn't going to go away. I gave up, went to my room and ordered dinner.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Vancouver to Manila - the long way around

Summer in BC was amazing. Camping, golf, sailing. The Cariboo, Sunshine Coast, Vancouver Island. But come mid-September the weather had started to change, the rain had begun to fall, Colleen had headed off on her latest yacht deliver, and I didn't have any real need to remain there. So it was time to move on.

I've had a love of Southeast Asia for quite awhile. I've enjoyed our trips to Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia. Also, I'm on a tight budget, not having an income coming in, so it had to be an affordable place. I had been thinking of making a trip to the Philippines for awhile, and it was time to make it happen.

I looked up how to get there. I could do the trip on miles with Aeroplan or KLM. Aeroplan would fly me right to Asia, with one stop, and around 18 hours total. KLM, on the other hand, would fly me from Vancouver to Amsterdam to Taipei to Manila. But KLM would treat me decently and I'd have decent length layover in Amsterdam. So, of course, I chose KLM.

On September 30th started the day by dropping a bunch of our things in our North Van storage locker, then visiting my mom at Kiwanis Care Centre. She was asleep when I got there, but I woke her up and we were able to join the coffee party they were having.

I got a drive to the Seabus terminal, caught the boat across to Vancouver, caught the Skytrain (subway) to the airport, and caught my flight out. Realizing that even though I'm pretending to be a 20-something backpacker I am no longer a 20-something backpacker I upgraded to economy comfort, knowing that my back might need the room.

The flight to Amsterdam was relatively unremarkable. I try, but really don't succeed at sleeping on flights. But when I got there the bigger reason for this longer route was clear. My friend Quincy met me at Schiphol airport and we headed for Purmerend golf course. He had a spare set of clubs in his car, I had brought a pair of shorts and a collared shirt. We hit the range and the chipping green. The third-member of our threesome, Bas, joined us just before our tee time, and we headed out.

Not shockingly, I played terribly. It was about 3:00am Vancouver time when we teed off. Even getting a bogey on the front nine was success. Surprisingly I got better on the back nine and wasn't unhappy with the round. Afterwards we all grabbed a beer and Quincy was ready to head for an early steak dinner. It sounded great, but I was getting worried about the time and didn't want to be rushed, so I headed back to the airport for my next flight.

Back at Schiphol I tried to upgrade for the next leg. The folks at KLM are usually great, and they directed me to talk to the gate agent. Unfortunately the person at the gate was a miserable unhelpful person, so I gave up on it. My Dutch golf buddies had taught me an important Dutch term to be used when golfing - teleurstellend. It means "disappointing", which is common in my golf game. The service from the KLM agent was teleurstellend.

My biggest fear being back at the airport was falling asleep and missing my flight. I was dying. My head kept dropping down and nodding off. But I made it onto the flight and headed for Taipei. It was a long and boring flight, and I was running out of decent movies on the inflight entertainment system. I reminded myself that I was in the midst of flying from one Pacific coast to the other Pacific coast in a day, with a round of golf in the middle, so I shouldn't be so precious.

The Taipei airport was interesting. We all had to deplane, walk through the airport to another gate, and then get on the same plane, which had been moved while we were going through the airport. I didn't get the logic of it.

The flight from Taipei to Manila was just a couple of hours. Fairly painfree. Upon arrival I headed through customs. I had read that you were supposed to have a return or onward ticket upon arrival, but I had chose to disregard that information since I didn't really have a plan for what I was going to be doing next. The customs office asked me for my return ticket, and I told her I didn't have one, that that I worked in advertising, I was here for two weeks, but that I didn't know what my next destination was and would be buying a ticket shortly. This is one of those occasions where having a bit (ok, a lot) of grey hair and not looking like a 22-year old backpacker comes in handy. She give the a close look, stamped my passport for departure at the start of November, and waved me through. Nice!

I had gotten some good advice about Manila from the gentleman sitting next to me on the flight. He had told me to get a SIM card for my iPhone from Smart or Globe. After arriving and getting my bags I went into the arrivals hall, where there was a Smart booth set up right there. They had a good price for a month of unlimited Internet access, texting and incoming calls, so I got that plan. The internet didn't work immediately, but I restarted my phone and it worked. To jump ahead a bit here, the Internet only worked long enough for me to get away from the airport and then it died. A couple of days later I got some help from another Smart retailer, who helped me call their customer support. After a lot of back and forth I found out that my iPhone had been set up for a Blackberry plan, and the folks at Smart had no intention of fixing the problem. Pretty annoying. That second retailer had been very helpful, and I bought a Globe package from her. It worked perfectly, and has been working ever since. So, my advice, go with Globe. That seems to be what most Philippinos have said to me too.

I walked out of the airport to the taxi stand. It was a bit chaotic, but the official taxi person there, walkie talkie & clipboard in hand, showed me the fixed price list to Intramuros, where I was staying. I paid the approximately 1200 pesos and jumped in. I later learned that this was a nice little scam as well, officially sanctioned by the airport. That fare should be a bit less than 300 pesos, but they're quite happy to help people new to the city out by charging them a 400% premium.

So, in my first two transactions in the country I'd been ripped off twice. What a dumb tourist I am. But, to avoid giving the wrong impression, I've been here for a couple of weeks as I write this and the Philipinos that I've dealt with have been nothing but honest and straightforward. The only dodgy practices come from the tricycle drivers, who will always inflate the price, but even they can be managed with a bit of negotiation. I don't mind paying a "tourist-tax" of a few pesos here and there because I don't know what I'm doing or where I'm going, but I do mind getting ripped off. Sure, I can afford it, but the principle matters.

My cabbie drove me through the insanity of Manila traffic. No rules. Everyone goes at once. And somehow no one gets in an accident, and we went to my hotel, the Bayleaf Hotel. The Bayleaf isn't a terribly cheap hotel, but neither is it in the ranks of the high end international chains. And it seemed like just the right thing after a very long flight. I could just chill.

I checked in and went to my room. It had been quite the trip. The rooms at the Bayleaf weren't terribly nice. Decently designed, but smallish, with poor WiFi, but the staff were terrific. Very eager to assist with any request. I was exhausted. I took a shower and needed to get some dinner. I didn't have the energy left to do anything other than grab a cheeseburger at the McDonald's next door. A shameful move upon arriving in a new country, but sometimes it's what's required.

I went back to my room, climbed into bed. It had been over 40 hours from door to door. Three flights, three continents, 5 movies, one round of golf, several gin & tonics, almost no sleep. It was good to be here.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Wrapping up the trip to Victoria

I'm on my next adventure now and was planning to update the blog, but became a little stymied by the fact that I hadn't completed the writings from my last trip. So here's an abbreviated summary.

We sailed up the Washington coast and made the turn in towards Victoria. There was very dense fog, which isn't the best to make on feel relaxed when sailing largely blind. We made our way East, through the passage, and the fog cleared around 11:00 on a beautiful sunny day. We headed into Victoria harbour, got directions to the customs dock, and called our client. We found the little customs dock, big enough for two boats, and tied up there. Our client had let us know he couldn't be there for a couple of hours, which was pretty surprising since we thought he was just waiting for us in Victoria.

There's nothing at the customs dock other than a somewhere to tie up your boat, a phone to call customs, and a locked gate. We called the customs guys on the phone and let them know we were there. They said they'd be there in about an hour, so we just sat back to wait. We were finally on solid ground, so we sat back to have a rum and Coke, but only had half a glass of Coke between us. Kind of like an old Got Milk ad. We discussed going over or around the locked gate, to resupply, but chose not to. That turned out to be a good thing, because when I mentioned the thought to the customs officers when they arrived they pointed out that that would have made us (me) liable to a very large fine and potential jail time. (Kinda harsh for a Coke.)

The customs officers rolled up in a big black Suburban, which made Cuno's day, since that fit his impression of how these things should be. Our client had already payed all the import duties on the yacht, since they'd bought it in Mexico they were a reasonable amount, but we couldn't get out of there until the client showed up. Fortunately, the client had just jumped on a Harbour Air flight over when we'd called, and he arrived just as the customs officers were leaving. So everything got taken care of.

The client was very nice. It turned out that he'd been sailing the boat north, and had fallen off the stairs shortly after they'd passed Bodega Bay, breaking his neck. He was fine, or at least as fine as you can be after a broken neck, but that was the end of his trip and that's why we'd picked up the yacht there. We spent a few hours with him discussing the trip, and in the end he bought Cuno and I dinner. We went for pasta at Pagliacci's, a Victoria institution.

Before departing that evening he asked is we had found the lifejackets. We said we had, pointing out to him the crappy ones in the stern storage locker. He said "No, the good ones." We had been through the every possible inch of the yacht, from bow to stern, and I knew there were no good life jackets on board. Well, it turned out they weren't on board. They were hidden under a seat in the dinghy. A stupid place to keep your PFDs, but there you go. I was a little annoyed at him for not having said anything before, and a little annoyed at Cuno for not having addressed it with him, but there was nothing to be done about it now and the trip was over, so it was OK.

We had one last night on the boat. The next morning we got up and cleaned so that it was far better than when we arrived. The owners came down to the yacht and we went through a handover process. They were very happy about everything and recognized the effort we had gone to, which was nice. Then it was time for me to go. I thanked Cuno and we said our goodbyes. The yacht owner and I shared a cab to the Harbour Air terminal, where I caught a flight back to Vancouver. That flight is always amazing, and it was the perfect day for it. I love the view of the Gulf Islands as you pass by.

It was a tough trip but I'm glad I did it. I saw an aspect of the coast that I'd never seen before, and I had experiences that I'd never had before. Cuno was a great skipper to sail with. Sure, we drove each other crazy once in a while, but he was always professional, buttoned down, and I felt safe with him. He taught me well, and prepared me for other deliveries, if I'm ever to take one on. I would trust him with my yacht, if I were ever to have one.